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Don't Forget the Cambodian Refugees

IN early August, an international conference convened in Paris to determine the future of Cambodia. Undoubtedly, the interests of several nations, as well as the interests of various factions within Cambodia, are being carefully considered in calculating a political solution. There is one group, however, not represented at the conference. This is the approximately 320,000 refugees, mostly women and children, living in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border.

These refugees, many of whom have lived in refugee camps for over a decade, have been used as political pawns by the three factions and the nations that sought to oust the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh. The three factions - the Khmer Rouge, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), and the Sihanoukists - will continue to use the refugees under their control as a way of legitimizing their claims to political power. The world, however, will no longer need these refugees, as the Vietnamese have announced an unconditional withdrawal from Cambodia.

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Approximately 96 percent of the refugees along the border are not protected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These ``displaced persons'' are subject to extreme hardship. There have been reports of pregnant women and children being forced by the Khmer Rouge to carry ammunition across the heavily-mined border. Those who disobey the Khmer Rouge have been summoned to sessions of political ``reeducation.'' Some have disappeared, others have been beaten, imprisoned, and even executed. It has been estimated that a vast majority of the population would move to non-Khmer Rouge camps if given the opportunity.

Coercion, intimidation, and fear, however, are not unique to Khmer Rouge camps. Residents of the KPNLF camp, for example, have been repeatedly victimized, often by bandits, Thai, and KPNLF security forces. Reports of rape, child abuse, kidnappings, and extortion have proliferated in recent years as Cambodians have been left to the mercy of well-armed soldiers and criminals.

The callousness with which the refugees are treated was recently displayed when UN and Thai officials, along with leaders of the two noncommunist factions of the Cambodian resistance, offered to return to the Khmer Rouge over 700 Cambodians who had fled Khmer Rouge camps. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for an infamous reign of terror which resulted in the death of over 1 million Cambodians, are still able to intimidate not only the noncommunist resistance groups but foreign governments and UN agencies as well.

There can be no just solution to the Cambodian tragedy without the interests of Cambodian refugees being taken into account. With Vietnamese troops scheduled to withdraw by September, it is all the more urgent that the future of displaced Cambodians be addressed. The following steps should be considered:

Cambodian refugees should no longer be forced to be affiliated with one of the political factions along the Thai-Cambodian border. All of the refugees should be transferred into a neutral, UNHCR-administered camp. There the refugees could obtain the protection they so desperately need. Moreover, the Cambodians in this camp should be prepared for eventual voluntary repatriation to Cambodia. Facilitation of repatriation is a prescribed function of UNHCR which has already signed a repatriation agreement with the government in Phnom Penh. UNHCR officials could interview the refugees in this neutral camp and help trace family and friends in Cambodia. This would help Cambodians to reintegrate into Cambodian society without coercion from any of the political factions.

Shipments of weapons to the border should cease. There are already far too many weapons on the border. Reports proliferate of 50-cent hand grenades and automatic weapons for sale in camps. To accomplish a peaceful reconstruction of Cambodia and to enable those living inside the camps to live safely, all nations should stop sending guns and military hardware to the border.

The women on the Cambodian border have been subjected to a high degree of violence over the past decade. They are mostly single heads of households and widows. The UN, although in principle recognizing the need to protect this vulnerable group, has provided little in the way of physical security. The repatriation agreement provides a window of opportunity for UNHCR to put its policies into practice.

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